Recently at a confirmation and reception retreat, I had people share their stories of why they have chosen to be Anglican Christians. Although all of the stories were different, there were some common themes that emerged. Most had come from non-liturgical backgrounds and had been drawn into the Anglican Church by the liturgy, the connection with history, and the Sacraments. As a (nearly) lifelong Anglican, I get excited when I hear others talk with enthusiasm about this wonderful treasure they have discovered. When everyone was finished I was so inspired that I decided to share my own story of why I have decided to follow Christ in the Anglican way.
My story starts many years ago with my great grandfather. My family was part of the Russian nobility under the Czars, and my great-great grandfather was a general in the Czar’s army. Needless to say, the Bolshevik Revolution was not good for my ancestors. My great grandfather, William John Zolnercyk, was able to escape, and eventually sent for his young wife Julia to join him in the small town of Berlin, New Hampshire. They brought with them to America their strong Orthodox faith, and before long they had built a beautiful Russian Orthodox Church in Berlin that is still there to this day. My grandfather grew up in that beautiful church in that small town, being formed in the traditions of Orthodoxy. After graduating from high school he shortened his last name to “Zolner” and left home to begin college at Bentley University outside of Boston.
While there he lived in the basement of a wealthy woman and took care of her furnaces in exchange for room and board. One day she noticed that he didn’t go to church on Sunday mornings and she asked him about it. My grandfather told her that he was Russian Orthodox and there were no churches close by for him to attend. She responded by saying, “My family has a pew at Trinity, Boston. You will join us there this Sunday.” It was less an invitation and more of command, but either way that was my family’s introduction to Anglicanism.
After college my grandfather joined the army, and just before he was scheduled to get out, war was declared and he was in for the duration. Like many men his age, my grandfather made a foxhole deal with the Lord: If he made it home alive he would be in church every Sunday. He made it home, and he kept his promise. Every Sunday you would find him and his family at St. Peter's Episcopal Church where he did numerous stints as church treasurer and belted out the tenor part on all the hymns.
When my parents got married and started a family they began attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Westford, Massachusetts. It was here that I have my earliest memories of church. I don’t remember much, but I do remember going up to the communion rail and receiving a blessing from the priest. I wasn’t sure what Communion was, but I felt like I was missing out by not receiving it. I knew that it was special.
When I was four years old, my family moved from Massachusetts to a small town in southeastern West Virginia called Lewisburg. There were not a lot of options as far as churches went, and it seemed that everyone in town was either Methodist or Presbyterian. My parents wanted to go someplace that had programs for the children (myself, my twin brother, and our older sister), and since they liked the minister at the Methodist church we started going there. It was a fine church. They had Sunday school, children’s choir, and even an Easter egg hunt for the children (I found the golden egg one year and won a huge chocolate bunny). My dad started teaching the high school Sunday school class, and I used to love going up into their classroom because they had an air hockey table!
There was a small Methodist church up on Droop Mountain that our congregation had adopted, and we would send lay people there each week to conduct services. When my family did it I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I can still smell the wood in that tiny mountain church. I know it was only for one Sunday, but I kind of liked being the preacher’s kid and thinking of my dad as the pastor. The earliest seeds of ministry were sown in my heart that day.
But even with all of those wonderful things happening at our Methodist church, I felt like something was missing. I can still remember the first time we walked into the sanctuary I noticed there were no kneelers in the pews. “How do they kneel to pray?” my little 4 year old mind wondered. After attending services for a few months I also noticed that we rarely had Communion. Although I hadn’t been allowed to take communion in the Episcopal church, I still felt like something was missing from the Methodist service. As I got older, church became less and less important to me. It was boring. One Sunday I can remember looking around at all the people there, and I wondered why they had come. Their parents weren’t making them get up and go to church, and that was the only reason I was there. I couldn’t wait until I was an adult and could finally stop going to church on Sunday mornings.
A few years later, when I was eight, my parents went away for the weekend and my brother and I stayed home with a friend. His family attended the small Episcopal church in town so we went to church with them that Sunday. It was like a bomb went off in my soul. I instantly fell in love with the liturgy and the Prayer Book. I loved the fact that there was a well defined order to the service. I loved that music was not just sung to start and end the service but that it was used throughout. I loved being able to move around, standing, sitting and kneeling at various points during the service. I loved feeling like a participant and not just an observer. And I loved that we had Communion. “THIS IS CHURCH!!!” I thought to myself. When my parents got home from their trip my brother and I informed them that we would be going to the Episcopal church from now on. They were welcome to go to the Methodist church, as long as they dropped us off on the way. Thankfully, our parents were more than happy to join us there.
Overnight I went from being the kid who hated going to church to the kid who hated missing church. Sure, this tiny church didn’t have all of the things that kids are supposed to want. There wasn’t much of a Sunday school, there was no children’s choir or youth group. But I didn’t care. I started serving as an acolyte and I participated with the adults when we had parish work days. I knew the names of all of the adults in the church and they knew my name. This was much more than a place to go on Sunday morning. It was a family. It was my tribe. We started sharing life with these people and it was glorious. The summer before 5th grade we had the opportunity to go to church camp, and I did not think things could get any better. Not only were we there with a bunch of other Episcopalians, but we got to go to church three times a day!!! I couldn’t get enough. I started thinking that perhaps I was called to the priesthood myself.
Since those early days my love for the Anglican tradition has only grown and deepened. I am an Anglican by tradition, but also by conviction. For me, there is no better, more fulfilling way to be a Christian. Of course there is the tale of my journey out of the Episcopal Church and into the Anglican Church in North America, but that is a different story for another time.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.